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Home / Business / As GM's Lordstown plant idle, an iconic American job approaches extinction

As GM's Lordstown plant idle, an iconic American job approaches extinction

Robinson, who was then in the mid-20s, had been running around a series of low-paid retail jobs when she was teaching the giant factory down the road. The assembly line position came with generous health benefits, an hourly rate more than twice as much as she had done at a men's clothing store, and the promise of safe retirement – if she could continue her job for 30 years.

"It was a completely different world," Robinson, now 50, told CNN Business in late February. "I couldn't believe how lucky I was to make that kind of money without a college exam."

This world has evaporated for decades now. On Wednesday, when the Lordstown plant will make its latest Chevy Cruze and close the doors, it gets even smaller.

For GM, the move is part of an overall strategy to shift from sedans and to higher margin wagons and light SUVs in a period of low gas prices. GM also flows money to electric and autonomous cars, which are still primarily in the research and development phase. And with GM's investment in a ridesharing platform called Maven, the company looks forward to a future where fewer people are driving vehicles at all.

For employees, the transition means uncertainty, dislocation and immersion in a labor market with far fewer opportunities for those without training beyond a high school.

As recently as in the early 2000s, a job in an auto plant could be a starter for the middle class, but these jobs are becoming increasingly rare. During the Lordstown factory's heyday in the 1970s, GM was one of the largest private sector employers in the United States, with over 618,000 employees. That figure is now down to around 103,000. And the job that stays is not all that they once were. Since 1990, wages for US car workers have fallen 18%, adjusted for inflation. Pension benefits have also declined. In 2017, only 8% of the factories are offered pensions.
These trends are particularly pronounced in Youngstown, the Ohio region, an area about halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, where Lordstown sits. Thirty years ago, approx. 1 out of 4 local workers employed in the industry. Now, less than half are as many. Since the beginning of the big recession, real hourly wages have fallen by 8% in the area, while it increases by 11% in the rest of the country.
  Flags lined up outside the Lordstown GM plant.
Everything that has made GM jobs stand out: Full-time workers make up between $ 61,000 and $ 88,000 a year after just a few years at work, according to their United Auto Workers Union's contract, not including extra overtime pay and bonuses. It is well above the average salary in the Youngstown area, which was around $ 38,000 in 2017.

Contrary to the great recession, GM cuts these jobs – along with around 1,400 more hourly positions in US plants elsewhere – at some point as it is profitable and the national economy is strong. It is an indication that GM sees the future as one with fewer factory floor workers, not more of them. And for the Youngstown area it is a particularly symbolic battle to lose the last major supplier of the type jobs that made it a decade ago manufacturing facility.

About 400 of the 1,400 people who are no longer going to work in GM's sprawling Lordstown complex after this week, have accepted transfers to other plants and want to keep healthcare and pensions. Other former workers at the facility, who used to run 24 hours a day, were not so lucky. As the demand for Cruze declined over the past two years, the second and third moves were cut, and 3,000 people were dropped off. Many of them will not be offered the same transfer options that this latter group wants.

GM says 350 Lordstown workers are eligible for retirement, those who transfer will receive $ 30,000 in relocation service, and work to find new employment for anyone who wants it.

"We understand that the decision made is very difficult for this community because it affects people and families," says GM spokesman Daniel Flores to CNN Business. "Unfortunately, customers do not buy the product in a volume that would justify continuing production. Finally, we made the decision at a time when we were able to offer opportunities to people who would continue to work for GM."

Robinson believes she probably has enough seniority to be seated at one of GM's other facilities, such as the metal factory in Cleveland or the transfer plant in Toledo. She dreads the transfer – she must leave her 68-year-old aunt who needs support, as well as the rest of her family and her friends, and the city she's always called at home. But she has little choice: Despite the strongest US labor market in a generation, the economy does not generate the types of jobs that GM offered her as a young woman.

At least not in Youngstown.

"They've got me a choke team. There's nothing I can do," Robinson said. "I make $ 32 an hour. I'm not going to get a $ 12 job an hour. I couldn't survive it at all. I'll get up and go, ride it out, try to get the best concert I can get and be done with them. "

The" Good Old Days "

The loss of General Motors will not be the first time the Youngstown area took a shock to the heart.

It has happened since the sudden fall in the local steel industry in the late 1970s, as competition from cheap imports – and failed in US steelworks to compete – led to nearly 50,000 jobs disappeared within five years .

  The first female member of the UAW Local 1112 works on the Vega production line in 1970.


Throughout that time, the automotive industry some of a lifeline. The Lordstown facility, which opened in 1966, hired thousands of workers, and thousands worked in smaller, independent machinery stores that supplied auto parts to GM.

The GM factory swam locally and gave about $ 2 million a year in tax revenue, said Terry Armstrong, superintendent of Lordstown School District. The Lordstown school campus, with its large lecture halls and a planetarium, was built without debt.

The professional jobs paid far above the market, peaked in the $ 30-hour range, for reasonably humane tasks such as installing seat belts, securing engine brakes or forklift trucks. Former GM employee Tom Albright, who retired in 2015, remembers being able to do his work faster than the rest of the line and then relax.

"I could get ahead of the job for three hours, and then I could go off for three hours," said Albright, whose son still works in the facility. "They were the good old days. It's no longer so. They get every nickel they can out of the person working that job on the floor."

But then, cracks in the American automotive industry, which began with competition from Japanese car manufacturers in the 1980s, began and continued with NAFTA in 1994. Employment went out when work was outsourced to lower-paying suppliers, including factories in Mexico.

The Lordstown plant was not immune to the changes that have affected the workforce to a greater extent.

In 2007, when automakers became bleeding, the union accepted the establishment of a lower wage level for entry-level workers, which meant that they made 45% less an hour and got a 401 (k) plan instead of a guaranteed pension. After GM's bankruptcy in 2009, workers told CNN Business, the job became more difficult, and management pushed for less downtime.

"Slowly but surely, they became less and less thoughtful about those who worked for them," Robinson said. "It's just not the same company I used to work for. It's so much more cutthroat, and it's bad. I know the old GM is gone."

But many in society still realize that they work with families, donate to local charities and buy cars. They also generate other jobs: Since production brings in capital from outside the area rather than just recycling it, each factory position is estimated to have three or four people working in areas such as healthcare, food, retail, and education.

Therefore, United Auto Workers Local 1112 and the region's Chamber of Commerce Drive It Home began the campaign – a community effort to send characters, send letters, and work with politicians to convince GM to build another product at Lordstown plant. It was supposed to mimic another press two decades ago when Lordstown was in competition with other cities to win another car model replacing Chevy Cavalier. One worked, with the help of officials at the facility who joined the effort.
  Letters from primary school children are hanging inside the UAW's local 1112 hall in Warren, Ohio.

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"The only difference is that this time management was not interested in participating," said James Dignan, president of Youngstown / Warren Regional Chamber. "Plant management used to be very committed locally, but they lose some of the tie and it feels from the company to the community."

Dignan said they are working to get another user to the facility if GM decides to give it up permanently.

But it is far better to get another GM product to get another company to the local unions. These are their jobs, and they will probably still have more protection and higher salaries than any other employer.

"We don't want Elon Musk coming in. We don't want Amazon to build a distribution center," said David Green, who has been president of the UAW Local 1112 since May last year. He led another local in the facility in 2007 when the company asked to pay new employees lower wages.

"I supported it because the promise was product and work safety," Green said. "Do what we have to do to keep working, keep our communities and our families alive and thriving. It feels like they betrayed us a little."

  The school district of Lordstown set up a communal kitchen to distribute food, clothing and supplies to families affected by GM redundancies.
So far, the company has not shown its cards – and the uncertainty is what comes to people. Why take a transfer if it's likely that Lordstown will get a new car next year and you can come back? By the way, what new employer would take a chance on someone who would bail as soon as Lordstown was reopened? Many people remember how GM opened its factory in Spring Hill in Tennessee in 2011 after shuttering it two years earlier.

Therefore, for those who have the opportunity, the choice to go or live is so agonistic – even though the job had a good share of difficulties.

Tammy Vennitti, 55, was laid off with the second shift back in June last year. She had enrolled for a training course to retain her extraordinary unemployed benefits, and then put those plans on hold in January when GM called back those who had been laid off to fill in for those who moved to other plants.

Vennitti applied for transfer to a factory in Toledo, and she does not know if she gets it or if she would take it if she did, when she lives with her 27-year-old daughter and 18-month-old grandson. But she needs health benefits to pay for the blood pressure games her doctor put on during the stress of being laid off for months, not to mention caring for a body that took a stroke over 24 years of lifting 30 to 40 pounds, 400 times during the day. GM's gold-plated insurance paid for a shoulder replacement, carpal tunnel surgery and cortisone shot for a knee that had no more cartilage to cushion her legs.

"For 24 years I have done nothing for this company and this association, but bend over," Vennitti said. "This is all I've ever done. I never thought it would come to this."

  Tammy Vennitti sits in friends' homes in Newton Falls, Ohio. She was laid off and took medicine to help with the stress of losing her job.

Future Jobs

What's Next for Hiring in Youngstown?

The local chamber of commerce said there are 13,000 jobs in the area. Team NEO, a nonprofit economic development focused on Northeast Ohio, said there will be strong demand for information technology, healthcare and manufacturing workers in the coming years. However, unlike previous production jobs, which usually do not require high school education, 65% of these jobs will require a post-secondary ID by 2021, the group estimates.

There are many training opportunities, since GM workers get help from both the state and the US Department of Commerce through trade adjustment assistance. So far, there has been a lot of interest in trucking, says a state officer in Ohio, as it takes just a few weeks to get and pay relatively well.

Some workers saw the end early and took steps to prepare. Trish Amato, 43, was recruited too late for a traditional pension, reducing the need for a GM job. She used GM's educational benefits to complete her bachelor's degree and gain a master's degree in special education.

When she was laid off in 2018, Amato thought about going to the plant at Spring Hill, Tennessee. But she and her partner, whose truck driving is also working on Lordstown being open, didn't think they could afford renting in the thriving area south of Nashville.

  Trish Amato, a delimited GM worker himself, works at the UAW's transition center that helps people gain benefits and training opportunities.

Instead, they think about trading in their large rig for a motorhome and traveling the country, while learning online courses from the road – a future that would not have been possible without GM's help to go to school and that she would not have accepted without the GM relocation of the Lordstown facility.

"GM is hard to get away from because the insurance benefits are awesome," said Amato. "GM gave us a good life. Am I disappointed by what they are doing? "For other people, yes. For me, no. If something like this didn't happen, I wouldn't be able to follow a dream."

For the next generation, the question is what kind of salaries the new work class jobs will pay.

The local high school has started a training program for the logistics industry and helps prepare children for jobs in the many distribution centers that appear in the area. "It's our way of giving the kids a little bit of a leg," said Armstrong, superintendent in Lordstown School District, where about 15% of students have parents working in the facility.

But he said, "I don't see them paying what the GM jobs paid."

For example, TJ Maxx builds a facility that will use 1,000 people in the area. Workplace listings for other workers vary between $ 10 and $ 13.50 per hour.
  Terry Armstrong is superintendent in the school area of ​​Lordstown, who has already lost students whose parents have moved out of town to keep their jobs with GM.
The GM plant had also been a regular stop for politicians on the stump, from John McCain to Barack Obama, which gave the children a feeling that their city meant. On Tuesday, the school held a group photo to support the Drive it Home campaign; both students and employees had blue and brought their GM cars.

But after this last battle, Lordstown students will have confidence in a future in production?

"It would be very difficult to convince many of them right now, with the facility closed," Armstrong said. "They are able to make future cars, we just have to make that chance available."

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